By Mojirayo Ogunlana-Nkanga
As the world looks forward to celebrating the International Day for Universal Access to Information, one key issue that has been on my mind is the recurring violations of the rights of Nigerians to freedom of expression, association and assembly. At the time I filed the case of Amnesty International and 8 Ors. against the Government of Togo, I didn’t imagine that a couple of years down the line, Nigeria will join the league of countries violating the rights of its citizens to the internet. For those who have doubts as to the system of government in Nigeria, I just want to reiterate that since 1999, Nigeria has moved from military rule to a democratic government.
Since 2015 when this administration took over governance, it left no one in doubt whatsoever that it is a government that would be intolerant to the preservation of the civic space. It was clear that the government would operate its own version of ‘democracy’. Interestingly, Nigerians where adequately notified beforehand. President Muhammadu Buhari while flagging off the 2018 Annual General Conference of Nigerian Bar Association, as a Special Guest boldly said “…the Rule of Law must be subjected to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest…”
The Nigerian government has since then come out openly to request that the media should only publish censored information and as far back as 2018, it was clear that the government wants the media and by extension its citizens, to only express themselves in manners that would “not embarrass” the government. This is evidenced by the chain of events from 2019 till date.
At first, there was the issue of looking for avenues to control freedom of expressions through the passage of obnoxious and undemocratic laws in the forms of the social media bill, the hate speech bill, the NGO bill, the proposed amendments to the NBC code, and the Nigerian Press Council Act. Then the intolerance to democratic freedoms of expressions, including associations and assembly was further buttressed by the government on two very significant occasions.
Firstly, the events of 20th October 2020 in Lagos when its law enforcement agencies shot sporadically into the crowd of unarmed, unsuspecting, innocent and peaceful Nigerian protesters demonstrating against police brutality in Nigeria #Endsars; and secondly, the shutting down of the social media platform, twitter on 4th of June 2021. These events have now culminated into the ongoing violation of rights launched by the Federal Government in Katsina, Zamfara, and Sokoto Stated.
In case you are not aware, there is an ongoing violation of citizen’s rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association in those states. On the 3rd of September 2021, we all read about NCC’s directive to all telecommunication service providers to shutdown services in Zamfara and 13 local government areas of Katsina. Then on Monday 20th of September 2021, I read in the papers that the shutdown of telecommunication networks was extended to 14 out of the 23 local government areas of Sokoto state. The governments of those states have justified this shutdown as measures taken to tackle the activities of bandits.
Attempts to reach journalist or colleagues in those states have proved futile. Effectively, the people of those States have been deprived of their rights to access to information, freedom of assembly and association. It becomes obvious that the Nigerian government has once again sacrificed the rule of law in the interest of “national security”. It is not in question that every government must protect its citizens against any forms of violence or insecurity. However, in so doing it must ensure to protect and respect the rights of its citizens as constitutionally guaranteed. The government in exercising its right to protect its citizens and their properties must ensure to perform these tasks in conformity with the rule of law and compliance with international human rights standards. As established in international law and treaties, any restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, for instance, is limited to circumstances, where those restrictions are set out in law, serve a legitimate interest, and are necessary and proportionate in a democratic society.
There is not a doubt that this blackout makes it difficult for journalists and human rights defenders to document and uncover heinous crimes against civilians. There are questions as to how this shutdown is making it hard for people to connect with their families, sustain their livelihoods, protect their relationships and maintain their mental health. The effect of this denial of access to the internet and telecommunication services is that citizens right to expression, assembly and association are being violated. This right to the internet has been made clear by the United Nations when it stated in its 2019 Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation that, “universal human rights apply equally online as offline – freedom of expression and assembly, for example, are no less important in cyberspace than in the town square”. There is a denial of citizen’s access to their families, communities, businesses, such as the cases for banks and other private corporations. A report by Daily Trust states that Telcos may lose as much as 6.3bn to service the shutdown in Zamfara alone.
There is no justification for these shutdowns under domestic law. It is my submission that the decision of the government to order these shutdowns are arbitrary and done in a manner where the government was exercising complete discretion, and in circumstances where there was no public or judicial oversight, transparency, or accountability. Even in situations where security was at stake, the government has been advised to use the least intrusive measures in derogating from the rights of its citizens and to ensure that the measure is justified and necessary in a democratic society.
The question begging for answer now is, is the shutting down of telecommunications and the internet provided by law, does it serve a legitimate aim and is the government’s action proportionate and justifiable in Nigeria’s democracy?
Mojirayo is a Digital Rights, Gender, Media and Human Rights advocate, based in Abuja.